Day 28: Guatemala
When I woke up this morning, I did not think I was going to be in the mood to hunt down more food from some country whose cuisine I’ve never eaten before. After celebrating folk hero Jason Bernstein’s thirtieth birthday the night before, I wanted to turn on the air conditioning, spread out on the couch, watch a movie and eat something something effortless and boring, like Top Ramen. Then I get a text message from J-Smoov, my friend from Atlanta who may actually be the only living Atlanta Hawks fan on the planet (for you food people out there, that is a team that plays professional basketball). His text reminds me of the decision we made last night: we’ll play 1-on-1 basketball, full court, to 100 or until one of us decides to give up. The loser, or one who decides to give up, buys dinner at the Guatemalan restaurant. That is obviously an absolutely ridiculous point total for two guys who aren’t in the best shape of their lives, especially when one of them has been eating a big meal every single day for almost four weeks. So we added an out. If we have both broken the 30 point mark and both decide to call it quits, we each pay for our own meals. It also turned out to be around ninety degrees outside, which made this idiotic game a lot more exhausting. In the end, the final score was somewhere around 65-35. I got creamed, but I’m not very good at basketball, so the score wasn’t a surprise. I got home, showered, fell asleep and woke up sore, dehydrated and feeling some almost flu-like symptoms brought on by that “sunlight” thing I hardly ever see. On the drive downtown for dinner I am bitter, exhausted and don’t want to to be participating in this Personal Food Project in Blog Form. Not today. Not right now. Then I get inside, sit down and all of a sudden everything that excites me about this whole ordeal jumps right to the forefront of my brain. I can smell the food. It’s going to be good.
Paseo Chapin in Los Angeles, CA. Our friendly waiter starts offering suggestions, first by pointing to a dish on the menu and telling us “gringos usually like this one”. I immediately like a man who is willing to call me a gringo to my face, especially when his performance here today decides how big of a tip he’ll be receiving. We order two Guatemalan entrees and a dessert, then J-Smoov, who has managed to avoid food all day, decides “I’ll get some french fries, too. What the hell, right?” For some reason it’s a hundred and forty five degrees hotter inside the restaurant than it is outside, but I convince myself that it’s what Guatemala must be like and decide to let it slide. We munch on the bowl of chiles on the table as two fresh, crispy, fried corn tortillas topped with a non-spicy tomato sauce and a grated cheese eerily similar to parmesan slide in front of us. I don’t know what they serve at Taco Bell, but this is the closest thing to a “Mexican pizza” I’ve ever seen. It’s a perfect appetizer and has me chomping at the bit for our entrees as J-Smoov and I talk about the sore muscles which, prior to today, we were not aware even existed.
My pepian de pollo arrives, a chicken dish sauteed with toasted spices and served in a bowl of scaldingly hot, thick and deeply flavorful broth. The chicken is tender, which is my first gauge for the quality of a restaurant. Chicken is an animal which can be very tasty if cooked properly, or be a complete waste of time if overcooked by even fifteen seconds. The general fear of undercooked chicken (gasp!) has ruined this delicious bird across the United States and I’m getting pretty damn sick of it. But at Paseo Chapin, they know how to cook this guy and when the meat is tossed in a tortilla with the thick black bean paste (frijoles volteados) and rice, then dipped in the murky, mysterious broth, it’s like making out with the most beautiful Mayan woman the world has ever known.
J-Smoov’s Guatemalan sampler platter, Guate-linda, is a meat lover’s wonderland, serving thin carne asada, chile marinated pork (carne adobada), sweet, tender plantains and longanzinas— the most herby, refreshing sausage I’ve ever come across. On the side there is a flavor packed tomato sauce called chirmol and a thick, white creamy dip which tastes like a cross between sour cream and cream cheese and make me come to a very important decision: I really need to go on a road trip through Central America and try all of these delicious foods in their natural habitats. Of course, once I’m there I may as well keep on traveling through to South America. Then after that maybe I’ll fly to Southeast Asia and eat everything they have to offer before going through Japan, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Eastern Europe, Western Europe and Africa. Then I’ll probably hit every state in the USA on my way back home. That sounds reasonable, right?
But before I can get to that, there is still a dish in front of us so heavy and so dark that light simply cannot capture it. It takes light, grabs it by the throat and breathes black death into its mouth until it wilts, weeps and collapses in on itself. This, dear people, is mole de platano. You may think you have tried mole before, but can you really appreciate anything until you come face to face with its black, soulless overlord? I would say this stuff could be used to lacquer furniture, but I’m pretty sure the furniture would slowly disappear as it became absorbed by this substance, which would be called The Bog of Eternal Stench, except that “smell” cannot survive in its vicinity. I decide to take a big, full bite to get the complete experience. It coats the inside of my mouth, spreading out like that black alien suit from Spider-Man 3. After the initial shock wears off and I give myself a moment to take in the flavors, it is a remarkably complex mixture of bitter, sweet and rich, like a chocolate banana that has gone to hell, seen the abyss and come back to tell the tale. This small bowl could easily serve the dessert needs of nine people and a single bite is more than enough, but I foolishly decide it will require more analysis. Another bite, another full life cycle of emotions, tastes and feelings. I swallow and the black concoction drifts down my throat at its own self determined pace. J-Smoove and I actually take turns eating french fries to wash it all down with something significantly lighter. The mole is now a part of me, I think perhaps forever.
We walk out into the now cool night air and I become aware of the irony that this food, the very thing which I was not up for, is exactly that which got me back in the mood. Taste, especially when working in conjunction with all the other senses, is an amazing thing. No matter what I think I want, the right bite of the right food will totally transport me. The same way we crave the foods we like, there are certain foods that, once you try them, you wish you’d known to crave all along. Guatemalan food, like so many others, has done that for me. I want to learn more about it, but tomorrow is another day, another food, another country. If you treat it right, life can be very, very good.
2220 W 7th St
Los Angeles, CA 90057
Food Breakdown: 3 non-alcoholic beverages, 2 entrees, 1 dessert
Price: $30. We split it, since we both broke the 30 point mark and both gave up before 100.
Distance From My House: 8.7 miles